The crowd around Jesus is large, a multitude of thousands according to Luke, so many that they are stepping on each other in an attempt to get closer. The chapter before our reading today is one familiar teaching after another about possessions and anxiety and the coming of the kingdom of God. But they keep peppering Jesus with questions and it is clear that they do not understand him.
In frustration, Jesus cries out that if they are able to tell the weather from the clouds and the winds, why can’t they interpret the present time.
It is in the midst of that conversation that someone mentions the Galileans who were slaughtered by Pilate’s forces while they made their sacrifices in the Temple. It would seem that they are telling Jesus they certainly can interpret the time. We just don’t know exactly what their interpretation is. Are they saying that the Romans are getting bolder, that it is no longer safe even in the Temple, that now more than ever they need a King David-like messiah who will rid them of the oppressors?
Or are they saying that the fate of these Galileans is proof of the fact that they were not righteous ones making sacrifice but sinners who got what was coming to them. Perhaps they believe that God strikes down sinners who dare enter the Temple!
Whatever they meant, Jesus immediately turns the talk to sin, repentance and, yes, judgment. “Do you honestly think these Galileans were more sinful than all the others? Do you think the eighteen people killed when the tower fell were the only sinners in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, what happened to them had nothing to do with their sins.”
And that’s where everyone there probably began breathing a sigh of relief. Except that Jesus hadn’t gotten to the period of his sentence. “No; but unless you repent you will perish as they did.”
What? Does this mean this multitude needs to go home and lock themselves in their houses so that nothing can fall on them and Pilate can’t get to them? Didn’t Jesus understand that they were merely pointing out they could interpret the time? Is he telling them that they are not righteous, that God’s judgment could fall on them, too? You can begin to understand why some of these same people will turn against Jesus, can’t you? He is intent on poking them with a sharp stick.
And then he tells the parable of the fig tree. Fig trees have often been used by the prophets to represent Israel. The man in the parable probably lives in town, an absentee landlord. Note that he “has” the tree planted and it is to his vinedresser, a servant, that he is talking. All the man wants is the fruit. And when there is none, he decides that the tree should be cut down.
Now any gardener will tell you this is reasonable. Figs use up a lot of nutrients in the soil, nutrients that the grapes would be getting otherwise. And their sole purpose is to produce figs. If they don’t, then taking the tree out makes sense.
But the vinedresser asks for more time, for mercy on this tree. He will take better care of it, loosen the soil and fertilize it with manure to give it more nutrients. “Just give it this one more year, sir, and let’s see what happens.”
We are not told what happens to the tree. The disciples don’t ask for an interpretation of the parable. Maybe they understand this one. So why do we - I - have a hard time with it?
The first part of the reading makes good sense to me. I don’t for a minute think that bad things happen because God is striking us down for our sins or even the sins of our ancestors. That was the common belief at the time and it is still widely believed today. If it weren’t, then Pat Robertson’s statement that the earthquake in Haiti was God’s judgment wouldn’t have made the news, would it? When bad things happen to our dear friends, we don’t always know what to think. Well, Jesus makes it clear that we can stop thinking those things happened because of a person’s sins. Bad things often happen to us when we sin but God doesn’t cause us to become terminally ill or be hit by a drunk driver. Rather we live in the consequences of our own bad decisions, something which can be pretty hellish.
I do believe that Jesus is telling the multitude and us that we may well die without having made our sins right. If the only time we confess is here on Sunday, thinking that will take care of repentance for another week, we are sadly mistaken. There is a prayer in The Great Litany that asks the Lord to deliver us from dying suddenly and unprepared. Just like those who went to make their offerings in the Temple and found themselves the victims of state oppression. Or those who happened to be walking down the wrong street at the wrong time. Confession, repentance and reconciliation are daily activities. We don’t store our sins up all week long and get rid of them all at once. Some might take years but that just means we need to work on them for as long as it takes.
But the parable reminds me that even though the wrath of God doesn’t manifest itself in cancer or car accidents, the wrath of God still exists. Judgment Day will happen for all of us. An author I read this week said she imagines it will be like standing under a glaring spotlight and being bombarded by all the pains she has caused others, pains she meant to inflict and pain she didn’t know she had. For me, it has always been like the parable of the wheat and the weeds that grow up together, are harvested and then separated with the weeds being burned up.
I believe we will stand face to face with the Lord and be judged. I believe we can know a little of what that will be like every day when we sit down with God and talk about what we’ve done and what we haven’t done, about how we have hurt or been hurt and what we need to do about that.
But before we go thinking that we need to live our lives in fear and trembling waiting for the ax to be put to our roots, we need to remember the end of that parable. It’s about mercy and it says that even in judgment there is mercy. They come together as part of a whole. We all want mercy, rely on mercy when we go wrong, pray for mercy at least every Sunday - Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.
So I believe that, in some odd way, judgment is something we ought to look forward to. It won’t be painless but we will come away truly cleansed of all our wrongdoings, perhaps truly recognizing God’s love and mercy for the first time, so that we may increase in knowledge and love of the Lord and go from strength to strength in the life of perfect service in God’s heavenly kingdom.